“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” arrives in U.S. theaters this weekend, although it has been circulating internationally for weeks. The fact that Universal Pictures chose to release the movie everywhere else in the world first was an early warning sign of how little the studio trusted it to do well at the box office. This makes sense. The movie is the fifth in the long-running dinosaur franchise, adapted from the original 1990 Michael Crichton novel. But while the special effects have improved, time hasn't done the story any favors. Instead, those now in charge of the franchise seem to have misunderstood the thing that made the original film work: The dinosaurs are the real heroes.
While the special effects have improved, time hasn't done the story any favors. Instead, those now in charge seem to have misunderstood the thing that made the original film work: The dinosaurs are the real heroes.
The first “Jurassic Park” was directed by Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful filmmakers of the era. Spielberg was known for tapping into a sense of childlike wonder in all of his films, from his first blockbuster “Jaws” (You will believe a killer shark is coming for you!), to “Indiana Jones” (You will believe the Ark of the Covenant exists!), to “E.T.” (You will believe bicycles can fly!). “Jurassic Park” fell squarely within that genre, but also doubled it in a metatextual sense. Not only will you believe that dinosaurs have been brought back from the dead, but audience were told to believe that movies are magic enough to bring back dinosaurs from the dead. Dinosaurs were the film. They were the reason to see it, the reason to marvel at it, and, most importantly, they were the heroes we rooted for, especially when they broke free of the park’s constraints.
Over the years, the “Jurassic” sequels resulted in rapidly diminishing returns on the original. But in 2015, as part of our decade of endless Hollywood reboots, writer and director Colin Trevorrow resurrected the franchise, with a $208 million opening weekend no one saw coming. Once again, fans rushed to see their dinosaur heroes, now made even more impressive due to two decades of CGI improvements. Any human stupid enough to think he could control these marvels deserved to be eaten. Sadly, Trevorrow didn’t get the message, however, and in this newest sequel dinosaurs take a firm backseat to humanity.
Reviews of the film have complained about the nonsensical plot, but plot holes are to be expected with any “Jurassic Park” sequel. The fact is, no one as smart as the scientists are alleged to be in the franchise would ever step into such a park: Who better to understand the danger posed by dinosaurs than dinosaur experts? That was Spielberg’s genius in the first film: Stars Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum had no idea there were living dinosaurs on the island until after they arrived.
In the sequels, this dynamic hasn’t applied and as a result, the plots and the motivations make little sense. Hollywood’s fourth-most-popular Chris (Chris Pratt) goes to the park because he’s a nonsensical character who makes bad life choices, not unlike almost every character he plays on film. Heroine Bryce Dallas Howard goes because Trevorrow genuinely believes womens’ maternal instincts override any logical thinking. (No, seriously, that’s her entire character motivation for everything she does.) And the rest of the crew goes because they’re too young to know any better.
This positions dinosaurs as monsters who threaten the future of humanity. But that’s not how this works.
In the past, things for Chris and co. (or previous bands of humans) go belly up rather quickly and the audience is free for the rest of the movie to root for the dinosaurs. Not here. Instead, the dinosaurs are tranquilized, stuck on a boat in cages and otherwise kept quiet or off-screen for the bulk of the film’s middle act. This is merely an excuse to remove them from the island (which is then conveniently destroyed so they can never go back) and bring them to the North American continent. The film’s final “twist” is presumably that the dinosaurs find a way to free themselves and will start wreaking havoc in the next sequel.
Obviously, this positions dinosaurs as monsters who threaten the future of humanity. But that’s not how this is supposed to work. Spielberg’s original moral was that there were no good guys. Neill, Dern and Goldblum all come to the island because they were promised boatloads of money to do so, and are therefore fools. (Audiences do cheer for Goldblum, but that’s because he was the actor who best understood that his role should be to complement his dinosaur castmates, not steal scenes from them.) The point is the “heroes” only survive as a lesson to them to be better, not because they deserve it.